Many of us here at News4 hold Sandi Tomasello in our hearts. She's been through the unimaginable, losing both her young adult son and her father just one day apart in November 2017.
"When I look back, it's a blur. And then comes the grief when it's all over, and then it just hits you hard," she said.
Her son, Andrew, died after a courageous battle with cancer. He was just 25.
It's a loss that hit our newsroom, too, because Andrew was a beloved member of our team at News4, working as an intern and then a production assistant, always smiling despite everything he was going through.
Sandi Tomasello says she turned to food to cope with her grief and gained weight as a result. But now, at age 59, she's focusing on her health and discovering a new sense of joy she never knew existed, through exercise.
"It's a surreal experience," she said.
Two years later, she’s still on a journey toward healing.
"You still wait for him to come home and to call you and to text you, and when it doesn't happen, it just comes tumbling back," she said. "He's really gone."
Crippled by the grief, Tomasello says she struggled to get out of bed but drew strength from Andrew's coworkers, often volunteering at station events such as last year's Health & Fitness Expo. That's when a chance encounter changed everything.
She and her husband, Steve, were at the Expo volunteering, which is where she met health and fitness coach Laurent Amzallag.
"A friend of ours introduced him to me, and his energy just exploded … and he said, 'Just come and try; just come and try'," she recalled.
A Shifting Mindset: 'Accumulate Those Feel-Good Moments'
"I remember the first time I met her at the gym, I said 'Hey, my name is Laurent. It's a pleasure to meet you.' Before I could finish my sentence, she said, 'OK, listen up, Frenchie, I'm not going to do any burpees, all right?'" Amzallag remembers, laughing.
The rest is history. Amzallag has been working with Sandi for the past 10 months. He says the key to success is to start with small goals.
"One healthy habit will lead to another, right?" he said. "So you start with something small and then you'll feel good because you will feel good."
They work on everything from cognitive fitness on a Smart Fit wall to infinity rope pulls to Tomasello's personal favorite, kickboxing.
"My whole goal is to kind of shift her mindset into, 'Let's just enjoy ourself for that one hour'," Amzallag said. "Little by little, once you accumulate those feel-good moments, you start kind of shifting your mindset into a more positive place."
Tomasello said Amzallag has transformed her life, giving her the tools to take care of herself both mentally and physically. And when she feels like giving up, she thinks of Andrew for the motivation to keep going.
"I say a lot to myself, 'What would Andrew do?'" Tomasello said. "It was always, be positive, and just, 'Get through it, Mommy; you'll be fine'."
For Tomasello, it’s not about the number on a scale; it’s about finding purpose beyond the pain.
"I couldn't stay where I was. I was too depressed. I needed to do something, and exercise was the answer," Tomasello said. "… The grief is still there, of course; it will never leave us. But I felt so much better."
Tomasello works with Amzallag twice a week and says having a personal trainer helps hold her accountable, giving her the one-on-one support she needs to stay on task.
Others can find that support by working out with a friend, or joining a fitness group with people who have similar goals. There are also free apps and websites with exercises you can do from home.
Amzallag will be motivating people at this year's NBC4 Telemundo 44 Health and Fitness Expo, this weekend, Jan. 18-19 at the Washington Convention Center. Look for him in the workout areas.